Street (e) scape

I wrote an article a few years back for the KunstRadio project, GATEways. The article, and an interview with founder of the infamous bookshop, Polyester, has been republished by Sleepy Brain. It’s one of the few online mags I take time out to read.

Andrew Garton is the founder of Secession Records and co-founder of Toy Satellite, a non-profit artist-run organisation producing works for the web, radio, print, theatre, installation and film. Recently he participated in ‘GATEways’, a 24-hour netcast commissioned by Alien Productions and organised by Poly College in Vienna, Austria. GATEways dealt with the space inhabited by cultures in transition: participants sent live audio streams from Belgrade (Yugoslavia), Erfurt (Germany) and Vancouver (Canada). Andrew’s contribution, ’street (e)scape’, consisted ofphotos and sound recordings. For Sleepy Brain, ’street (e)escape’ is presented in two articles. The first, consisting of notes from the project and a historical overview, is below; the second, an interview with Paul Elliott of Polyester Books, is here.

Lygon St, Carlton: still resilient despite the emergence of a mall, poker machines, questionable cafes and inflated real estate. Life here seems vibrant, stimulating but in lesser amounts – perhaps it’s the illusion of public space created by extended footpaths, home to the latte-fixated patrons of the street’s numerous cafes and restaurants. Just off Lygon, at the end of a small and dusty carpark, is La Mamas, perhaps the single most important theatre in Melbourne, powering with eccentric will, propelled by its own presence and the vortex of expression and creativity it is host to. It’s a perfect day for sound.

At La Mamas playwrights have come and gone, been tested and toasted, roasted and forgiven for just over three decades. I head straight for the interior, drawn to curtain blacks and wooden floor boards like my father was in his early 20s in Europe. Standing in the theatre – a new work built up around me – I looked for signs of wear and tear. I could only feel love… People come to La Mamas to challenge and be challenged, to reach out and be touched. This is a rare theatre. Seating, at most, around seventy people, it is certainly an intimate space.

These few moments in La Mamas reminded me of the power of the human interface: the telling of stories in directed, audible and felt space, where the swing of a performers arm can perceptively move the still air around one’s face, where the aroma of the stage and all that has come and gone over it can be savoured. Here one can demonstrate the nuances of human communication. Suddenly my Masters project, a study of traditional forms of theatre and their relationship to the web, felt diminutive, unimportant and ready to be forgotten.
Throughout Melbourne’s history, bohemian culture has found its home in the multicultural streets of Carlton, Fitzroy and Collingwood. Marked by government housing apartments, these suburbs have been common destinations for migrants: Vietnamese, Chinese, Greeks, Italians and some Middle Eastern communities. This mix of languages and traditions has attracted writers, artists, musicians and poets since the 1960s. Yet in the past two decades, these areas have become synonymous with significant increases in property values, particularly residential and commercial rent. Commerce has descended and is laying to waste a culture that has stimulated so much creative activity.
After La Mamas, I’m drawn to Tiamo’s for coffee, time out, observing the process of energetic pastimes; or just a comfortable nook. A photo of a young Paul Hogan with turban and moustache beams at the clientele seated at the bar, a smile from this man’s youthful past, a brief encounter with Melbourne on his stairway to Hollywood. The coffee is rich and aromatic, tasteful without a hint of milk. That’s how I like it – with body – a perfect blend of fluids. It’s a fine brew and well worth the walk from Smith St.

In the 1960s Lygon St dominated the theatre and visual arts with its band of writers and painters, many of whom frequented the sparse cafes and pubs that were sparsely located there. Melbourne University and RMIT’s student population also contributed to the vitality of the street. By the mid-to-late 80s, however, Lygon St began to attract investors and the wealthy middle class who wanted to live among all those interesting people. As they came, rents increased, the artists left and the restaurants and malls moved in.

Tiamo’s: cups, plates and spoons shuffled hurriedly away in worn-out trays, shelves and containers. The staff weave about like dancers, performing repetitive tasks with grace and precision. Time to go… Damn! The agony of the sound artist is finding the recorder on pause. Regrettably, another coffee, stomach palpitations…I know I won’t recapture the owner singing, the banter and exchanges that were so engaging between staff and clientele…It’s a pity…the singing promised to be the most exciting aspect of listening back to these tapes…he’s changed the menu left the bar for the kitchen.

A quarter of the way into the second coffee and I’m feeling mellow. I recall this mood from Sydney, sitting at Café Black or the Bookshop Café – that feeling of uncertainty and dread, thoughtfulness and fear. I found comfort from such moments in Satre’s early writings, but these days I can barely read a chapter of IRON IN THE SOUL. In some ways I’ve changed little, just oppressed myself more…

After Tiamo’s I take photos of Jimmy Watson’s, one of the finest wine bars in Melbourne. It has a tradition of playing host to the city’s literary community – some of whom have carved their names into the interior woodwork of the bar. (A soundscape over lunch is something to keep in mind.) Next stop, Brunswick St. I’ll photograph the Planet Café, the (former) Punters Club…tired already.

I head down to Brunswick St via Johnston, the spectre of the Carlton housing commission apartments to my right. (When I first came to Melbourne people told me of the suicides there and the baby that had fallen or been thrown, surviving a three-storey drop where others were not so lucky.) Johnston Street is infamous for Melbourne’s Spanish quarter, once raw and fecund, vital and daring, now tainted by discos appealing to the bored middle-class. You won’t find many Spanish-speaking people here on a Friday or Saturday night – most have headed to the new music barrios on Smith St. Once on Brunswick I score a great interview with Paul Elliot, founder of Polyester Books. Everyone I meet unshackles yet another hidden history.

From the late 1980s through to the early 90s, a steady flow of bohemians left Lygon for Brunswick St, the next major parallel shopping centre in the working class suburb of Fitzroy. But money follows quickly, and so too real estate. Brunswick St today supports more than 90 restaurants and cafes and is officially registered as a tourist district;. Struggling to retain elements of its past, it now has street-lined apartments, a 7/11, a Blockbuster Video store and, in the pipeline, a $7,000,000 investment featuring a supermarket and mall-style eatery. All this on a street once home to the most violent pubs in Melbourne and the hardiest of band venues.

The last bastion of Melbourne’s bohemia is Smith St, surrounded by tired, disused factories and warehouses and the ever-present government housing estates. People in traditional dress walk comfortably among Aborigines, ferals, homeless people, artists, drunks, slumped heroin addicts and the ever-desperate, eternally bored middle class. But venture a few blocks down from Smith and one can’t help but feel surrounded, as if commerce is moving around to strike from the bottom, from the expensive, thin-walled and hurriedly built warehouse apartments to the few glitzy restaurants serving the wannabe public. (The kind of eating establishments where you won’t find local Aboriginal or Asian communities). Big Business is relentless, but on Smith St it seems to have found hardy resistance. For a time…

I complete these notes while sitting in the Pasta Classica Café on Smith St, home to Melbourne’s best-known pasta family, with the graceful and generous matriarch, Mama Vittoria Tonin, at the helm. The café started off as a pasta house, the rear of the premises a pasta factory of unequalled quality. I recall three tables maximum, great coffee and the most tasteful and filling foccacias ever. Two years ago, they expanded. Hot pasta is now served for lunch, with gleeful faces preparing food and coffee, and Robert, Mama’s eldest, presiding over the entire operation with his Cheshire face and boisterous cheek. I come here for the clatter and warmth that one can only find in the remnant memory of bygone families. Robert offered to tell me a few stories, but that would have to wait for an extended street (e)scape. I know he would have much to tell and I would want to listen without the pause on hold.

Published in Sleepy Brain

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2 thoughts on “Street (e) scape”

  1. i does a good job of placing melbourne within a cultural sphere that does not to keep up with fashion, but still look good!

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